High-stakes poker en route to elections
The prime minister is now playing poker with the American administration. He wants to quash certain ideas that are being hatched by the State Department, in collaboration with the Europeans and the UN, to draw Israel into negotiations for a permanent settlement and to set up target dates for both the settlement and Palestinian statehood.
The CIA ran a want ad last week, seeking "Leadership Analysts" to compile intelligence assessments on Middle East leaders and decision-makers. Candidates are required to know Arabic or Farsi, but not Hebrew. It is not clear whether they already know all they need to know in Washington about Ariel Sharon, or if they have simply despaired of even attempting to predict his next moves.
The prime minister is now playing poker with the American administration. He wants to quash certain ideas that are being hatched by the State Department, in collaboration with the Europeans and the UN, to draw Israel into negotiations for a permanent settlement and to set up target dates for both the settlement and Palestinian statehood. If Sharon is successful, he will gain more time in office, without having to offer any real concessions to the Palestinians.
With his coalition in trouble and the country on the verge of economic collapse, Sharon is upping the ante, with some tried-and-true tactics: presenting rigid positions that are intended to flush out the other players' resolve and the nature of the cards in their hand. Aides close to the prime minister assess that Sharon will easily make it through the upcoming visits of CIA director George Tenet and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns. The true test - at which time he will have to show his cards - will be on June 7, the day after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's visit to Washington. That is when President Bush will be asked to decide on America's Middle Eastern policy.
Sharon has no reason to be hasty. Last week, he dispatched Mossad director Ephraim Halevy and Major General Giora Eiland to Washington to explain that Yasser Arafat's removal is Israel's prerequisite for negotiations. In the next few days, Military Intelligence director Major General Aharon Ze'evi will also be flying to Washington with the message that a settlement with Arafat is simply not possible.
The wild card that Israel is holding in its hand is the Palestinian people's state of distress. Eiland said on Tuesday that the international community would have to choose between Arafat's continued rule - including the closures and cordons that entails - and his removal from office, which would be rewarded by an improvement of living conditions in the territories.
Operation Defensive Shield weakened both Sharon and Arafat, and both men are now trying to translate their weakness into political power. Sharon revealed his vulnerability to White House pressure, and the local political system has begun to slip and slide its way toward new elections. The international community gave up the idea of a cease-fire as well as the step-by-step model - first security progress, followed by diplomatic progress - and is now considering ideas for a permanent settlement and internationalization, neither of which is to Sharon's liking.
Arafat is having a hard time justifying the heavy price of the "war of the martyrs" he waged against Israel. If he insists, Sharon could fall, or Israel could knuckle under to the pressure of internationalization.
The solution found by the two leaders was to threaten the American administration with the doomsday machine - new elections - after which they would again line up along the confrontation line, reinforced by a renewed mandate from their respective constituencies. Sharon told Colon Powell that any pressure on him would lead to the ballot box, and thwart any and all progress for at least six months. The Israeli candidates have already begun to vie with one another as to who can come out more strongly against Arafat. As for the Palestinian side, Arafat aide Mohammed Rashid said in Washington that an election campaign in the Palestinian Authority would compel the candidates to present inflexible positions.
What will Bush do? Sources in the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry are assuming that the White House will once again prefer to avoid a clash with Sharon. "Our issue does not seem to pose any strategic problems for the current administration," says one senior Foreign Ministry official. "They do not see it as a threat to their interests, such as Iraq or the crisis between India and Pakistan."
Sharon aides concur with the analysis, and are not expecting any pressure. Experience shows that talking about early elections tends to turn into reality before long. That being the case, we should not be expecting much diplomatic progress over the next few months.